LONDON – Some 50 students and vetted, invited guests turned up Thursday evening to hear Israel's Ambassador to the U.K. Mark Regev talk Palestinians, Israelis and prospects for peace at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
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There would have been little noteworthy about the somewhat dry, policy-heavy and history-filled polite discussion, but for the other students and activists – at least three times the number of those inside the small second-floor auditorium – who gathered in the April rain outside to chant slogans, wave flags, beat drums and protest Regev’s very presence.
Thursday’s event – organized by SOAS’s Jewish society – went ahead as planned despite demands by 150 academics and over 40 SOAS student societies that it be cancelled, on grounds that Regev was a “provocative” and “distressing force,” and as such unwanted on campus.
For close to two hours before the event began and all throughout the hour-and-a-half-long talk, demonstrators outside kept chanting: “Free, Free Palestine,” “Palestine will be Free,” “Free Gaza,” along with other variations on theme.
A massive Palestinian flag was hoisted at the top of the university’s entry stairs, and students and activists, many of them wrapped in kafiyas, held up placards with their positions writ large on them: “You are not anti-racist unless you are anti-Zionist,” read one. “Netanyahu LiKKKud,” read another, equating the Israeli prime minister and his party with the racist Klu Klux Klan.
One big banner, held up by several Hebrew speakers, read: “Jews for boycotting Israeli Goods.” Black and red stickers reading “Freedom for Palestine” were handed out and stuck everywhere – from student backpacks to foreheads – and a falafel food truck showed up and was doing a brisk business.
Organizers handed out leaflets urging demonstrators to keep to a code of conduct: “Don’t talk to cops,” “don’t talk to media,” and “don’t interact with Zionists,” were the main suggestions. “Consider covering your face to shield your identity from haters,” was another.
Counter-demonstrators were also at hand at the university, blasting the old-time Israeli Eurovision favorite Hallelujah over and again at top volume on a boom box and walking around with signs reading “Free Speech.” Other of these counter-demonstrators, many of them wrapped in Israeli flags, or waving them, tried – usually unsuccessfully – to challenge the demonstrators and get into discussions and arguments.
Meanwhile, inside the auditorium, Eric Heinze, a professor of law from Queen Mary University who was invited to moderate the discussion with Regev, got the evening going with an attempt to move beyond slogans. “There are those who think you are a warmonger,” he posited, “and that you should not be here but in The Hague.”
As the mild-mannered Regev began to speak, giving historical background and long explanations, chants and music from outside the room almost drowned out his words.
“If I am a provocation I apologize. I don’t mean to be,” later said Regev. “Some people view Israel through a colonial prism – but this ignores the Jewish connection to the land of Israel: It’s simplistic and not correct to use this paradigm.”
“Should Israel ever have been founded at all?” Heinze went on, trying to push buttons as the sleepy audience listened in.
“Yes,” responded Regev, launching into a lesson on Israeli’s right to national expression, and the Jewish people’s history of dispersion, discrimination, pogroms and genocide. Questions about settlements, BDS, Israel’s right to exist and the fate of the two-state solution were tackled at some length by Regev and the evening was wrapped up without incident, interruption or any Eureka moments within an hour-and-a-half.
As the ambassador and his team drove away, the rain picked up, the demonstrators went home, and the sniffer dogs and campus police packed up and called it a night.